Eels: On Vulnerability and Longevity

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E is shocked to discover how old I am.

“I’m twice your age!” he exclaims. “And you’ve heard of the Eels?! That’s great!”

The band’s founder is about to release his 11th studio album, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, as the leader of alternative, experimental band Eels. But E, whose given appellation is indeed Mark Oliver Everett, has been writing and recording since he was a teenager. Polydor released A Man Called E in 1992, and Eels’ debut, Beautiful Freak dropped in 1996.

It’s four days until release day for The Cautionary Tales, and E is calling from Los Angeles. His shocking, dramatic, tragic life story has already been told, retold and expertly analyzed by himself and others: how his father—esteemed scientist Hugh Everett III—died of heart failure, and his sister—suffering from schizophrenia—committed suicide, and his mother lost her fight with lung cancer. It’s all out there, in his songs (especially 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues), as well as in his 2008 autobiography, Things The Grandchildren Should Know.

In speaking with him, E doesn’t avoid these topics. He references them directly, yet with the sort of detached tone of one who has accepted a situation, if not necessarily understood it. It’s reflected in his voice, gruff and a bit nasal, as he states, “My goal was to have a boring life after everything I put in the book because it was a lifetime’s worth of drama. But if anybody read the book and are interested in an update since then, this album is the closest thing to that.”

Likewise, The Cautionary Tales incorporates elements of personal vulnerability and haunting life truisms with mostly complete disclosure. It starts with the album artwork, which shows a clear side-profile of E. You can see where his thick-rimmed glasses sit on his nose, the overgrown scruff merging into neckbeard territory and the looseness of his tie. Part of what’s striking about the image is its grayscale shading—that is, except for the title, which clearly exposes the songwriter’s full name in vivid blue.

“I think one mistake that could easily happen with a cursory glance at the album and a cursory listen…you could go, ‘wow, this guy sure is self-involved.’ But that’s not what it’s about at all,” E says emphatically.

“I really feel like I’m sacrificing myself as a specimen in the laboratory because that’s what I know best—my experiences. And I’m saying, ‘Maybe you can learn from my experiences because I really fucked this up. I’m figuring out how to not do that in the future.’ And hopefully that can help people become aware of their own situations. So in a way, it’s the opposite of self-involved. There’s a selfless aspect here, too!”

The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett is exactly what it purports to be—snippets of E’s life that serve as wary warnings for craving listeners. It searches for answers that E has tried to find for years. For so long, in fact, that the album was shelved for years before its release. He explains, “We made a version of this album a couple years ago and then I left it alone and came back to it more recently. I took off all the songs that sounded like obvious singles to me. Not in an act of self-sabotage, but in an act of really trying to make the record as powerful as I could make it. I decided to be brave enough to forget about that aspect of it completely and really just try to get the story told and the point across in the best musical way I could.”

Part of what makes it so powerful is the rich orchestral arrangements provided by band members Koool G Murder, The Chet, P-Boo and Knuckles. Although E quickly notes that he’s used classical instrumentation since 2000’s Daisies of the Galaxy, the violins, violas, cellos, flutes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, saxophones, trumpets, musical saw, glockenspiel and celesta all add such specific musical emphasis to the emotionally-heavy nature of the record.

Elaborating on why he returned to the record, E continues, “Besides the music changes I wanted to do, I also realized that there was plenty of songs where I was blaming someone else. It occurred to me that the key to the whole thing was that the only thing I could change in the world is myself. And then I realized it was all my problem. So then it became a record about responsibility to me, and that’s a much more interesting thing.”

So The Cautionary Tales could be a breakup record, as indicated in the direct ballad “Agatha Chang” or “Series of Misunderstandings.” It could be an homage to his father’s scientific many-worlds interpretation with lyrics like “I know you’re out there somewhere / and I know that you are well / looking for an answer / but only time can tell” in “Parallels.” Or it could be something else entirely—something internal and elusive that will be revealed to us many listens later.

Although E is surprised by my comparison, it sounds like The Cautionary Tales is fitting for these times. Eels’ latest continues the recent indie-rock tradition of integrating “pure” instrumentation with rhythmic guitar work and confessional storytelling (likely in an effort to combat the dehumanization and digitalization of everything).

So I ask E how he feels, thinking about how The Cautionary Tales could be the gateway to Eels for new audiences.

“That feels great,” he says. And he sounds like he means it. “The fact that I got to make one record, let alone 11 records, is a miracle because I was really a lost cause when I was younger.”

We continue to talk about how new Eels fans will get to enjoy the process of immersing themselves in his 20-some-year back catalog and how, as I try to assuage him, it just proves that music transcends generations.

He considers this suddenly serious nugget briefly. “Yeah I hope so,” he says. “It gives me hope.”